The workshops are the heart of the Calgary Folk
A Distribution of Heterogeneity in Free Spaces
Story and Photographs by Gary Singh
t the Calgary Folk Fest, the observer/participant becomes half-starved
and half-filled up. Split almost right down the middle. The starved
half must move and interpret new territories, areas and stages. The
filled-up half seems more satisfied with the stable condition, the sedentary
condition, the lawn chairs.
This is the mind-topic of the Fest, emerging before
the observer even departs from the hotel. A concrete bust of a dudes
head confronts him in the lobby of the Hotel Arts. Art and abstraction
versus sedentary and concrete--a polar opposition from the start. The
Folk Fest being a mechanism for harmonizing the two, of course.
Concrete bust at Hotel Arts
Down the street, the festival awaits. One can arrive
by either by land or water, from the streets or the river, as a pedestrian
or on a raft. Once inside Princes Island Park, the traveler can
either set up shop at one gig or migrate, like a nomad, from stage to
stage, as aimlessly as he desires. The choices oscillate between static
gigs on a timed schedule and collaborative improvised workshops where
any number of performers may come together and create something more
than the sum of the parts.
Wandering in the general direction of the Fest through
downtown Calgary--a pseudo-Cartesian grid of streets with numerical
names--becomes utterly hysterical. Every street is a number,
not to be confused with every avenue, which is also a number.
For example, Hotel Arts sits just to one side of 1st Street SW, close
to where 12 Ave SE begins, as opposed to 12 Ave SW, which begins on
the other side of Centre St. South. On the other side of the tracks,
the Calgary Tower sits at the intersection of Center St SW and 9 Ave
SW, which becomes 9 Ave SE. Occasionally, a street will cross an avenue
with the same number, adding to the insanity. One can travel for a block,
turn right, and then turn left, with all three of the streets being
For a more fluid, non-grid-like feel, the Bow River
flows eastward through the city and around Princes Island Park.
An integral defining component of the landscape, the river means everything
to Calgarians, their history, their identity and their culture. It is
one of the great rivers of Canada.
Floating towards the Folk Fest
As one approaches the Fest from the river--an activity
easy to arrange--the skyline comes into view ever so gradually. The
Bow River becomes a smooth, graceful happening, a natural antithesis
to the linear grid-layout of downtown Calgary.
The skyline of downtown Calgary when approaching
from the Bow River.
At the Fest, the nomad must move. Always. He cant
sit still, unlike the thousands that set up their lounge chairs, blankets
and tarps for the weekend.
Folk Fest fanatics getting ready for the weekends
events on the main stage.
For the nomad, the workshops become the juiciest component
of the festival, allowing for constant motion. He just trips in, around,
and, especially, between. Theres always a sonic between-ness about
the event, as one roams around the park. One stage fades away as the
next one draws near. Bluegrass fades into Quebecois folk music, which
fades into Arabic hiphop jazz, which fades into Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Buffy Saint-Marie on stage at the Folk Fest
All the regulars provide the same response regarding
the workshops: They are the real deal, the heart of the Fest, where
one sees raw improvisation, ad-hoc accompaniments and thrown-together
jams, often among artists who wouldnt normally share the same
The word, workshop, though, barely suffices.
One act is usually the host, but the collective assemblage of musicians
organizes the set amongst themselves, right on the spot, deciding what
to play as they go. Sometimes it merely rotates, with each group performing
in succession while the others improvise an accompaniment. A songwriter
might perform a tune by herself or she might call out the chords or
the key signature, just so the others know whats in store. In
other scenarios, the whole affair explodes into a multi-instrumental
ensemble jamming for twenty minutes. Whatever happens, happens. No expectations
Migrating between workshops requires food
Each workshop bears a creative title. Avant Bards,
for example, elicits attention right off the bat. Elvis Bossa Nova,
BRAIDS, Kris Ellestad and Cadence Weapon provide something on stage
at the same moment. A female vocalist. A male vocalist. A spacey electronic
soundscape, then smoky, folky vocals, then garage exotica ala
Martin Denny with percussion, woodwinds and strings. Another workshop,
Tryst n Shout, brings the Punch Brothers to
the same stage as Buffy Saint-Marie. She even did the song from those
episodes of Sesame Street moons ago. A more ethnically middle-eastern
workshop, Mazel Tov! features Yemen Blues pitted against
accordionist Geoff Berner.
Goeff Berner on stage with Yemen Blues
But the workshop ripest for stalking becomes the one
titled, Vex Us. The a cappella feminine pastels of Chic
Gamine captivate a jam-packed tent. The audience overflows onto the
grassy hills outside. Members of David Wax Museum, The Head and the
Heart, and the Felice Brothers all take part in the session, trading
songs, a few after the other. The mesmerizing Francophone singer, Beatrice
Martin, aka Coeur de Pirate, performs ethereal piano-and-vocal numbers.
Bonnie Prince Billy later jumps in with the entire group.
At this point, the observer feels like a participant,
but cannot sit still. He must migrate to the next stage. No desire to
park his caboose in just one place. Movement is key at the Fest. Back
at Hotel Arts, the concrete bust awaits.
The concrete bust overlooks the lobby at Hotel Arts
Rupert/Digby Island, B.C.; Victoria;
Blues and Lives Well-Lived